Simien Mountains National Park
Ethiopia’s premier trekking and walking destination, the 412km2 Simien Mountains National Park was inscribed as a Natural World Heritage Site in 1979, whereupon UNESCO lauded it as “one of the world’s most spectacular landscapes, with jagged mountain peaks deep valleys and sharp precipices dropping some 1,500m”. In addition to the splendid scenery and hiking opportunities, the Afromontane meadows and moorlands of the upper Simiens also form one of Ethiopia's most important biodiversity hotspots, populated by an alluring wealth of endemic plants and animals including Walia ibex, gelada baboon and Ethiopian wolf.
- The bedrock of the Simien Mountains comprises a vast and ancient basaltic dome moulded into a series of jagged pinnacles and buttresses by glacial activity and precipitation. More than a dozen of its peaks top the 4,000m mark, including the 4,533m Ras Dejen, which is Ethiopia's tallest mountain.
- The Afromontane vegetation of the Simien Mountains includes more than 1,200 plant species, of which three are endemic to the national park. Above 3,700m, the dominant vegetation type is open grassland punctuated by spectacular giant lobelias that stand up to 10m high. Giant heather trees and other ericaceous plants are the main vegetation type between the 3,000m and 3,700m contour.
- Simien protects an alluring selection of endemic wildlife. It is the last remaining stronghold of the impressively horned Walia ibex, the only goat indigenous to sub-Saharan Africa. Large troops of gelada baboon are rendered unmistakable by the male’s flowing lion-like mane and heart-shaped red chest patch. A population of around 50 Ethiopian wolves is the world’s second largest after Bale Mountains National Park. Other large mammals include Anubis baboon, Hamadryas baboon, grivet monkey, Menelik’s bushbuck, klipspringer, common jackal, spotted hyena and leopard.
- Simien Mountains National Park is one of northern Ethiopia’s key birding sites, with a checklist of 180 species that includes five Ethiopian endemics and 12 near-endemics. However, many would say the true avian star of the Simien is the magnificent lammergeyer, a cliff-loving vulture with a 2-metre wingspan and the only bird in the world with a specialised diet of bone marrow.
- The best way to explore the Simien Mountains is on foot or mule back Several overnight options are available. The 3-day trail connecting Sankaber, Gich, Imet Gogo and Ayna Meda is recommended to those whose main interest is endemic wildlife. For peak-baggers, the ascent to the summit of Ras Dejen could be undertaken as a 3-day hike from Chennek. For those with limited time, it is possible to drive east from Debark to Chennek along an all-weather road, and to exit the car for short walks.
Debark, the junction town for the national park, lies 830km from Addis Ababa, 275km from Bahir Dar and 100km from Gondar along a surfaced road. It is 250km southwest of Aksum along a road that remains unsurfaced for much of its length. The 100km drive from Gondar to Debark takes up to two hours. Transport can be provided by any operator in Gondar and taxis are also available to do the run.
The entrance gate at Buyit Ras is 14km east of Debark. Transport there, or to any of the lodges or camps, can be arranged through the national park office in Debark or using local tour operators located in the main towns.
The closest airport is at Gondar. This is connected to Addis Ababa, Lalibela and Aksum by daily flights with Ethiopian Airways (www.ethiopianairlines.com).
The best way to explore the park is on a multi-day hike or horseback trek arranged through the park headquarters at Debark. Alternatively, an all-weather 4x4 road runs east from Debark towards Bwahit Pass before veering south to Darasge Maryam.
A world-class ecolodge is situated 6km east of Buyit Ras and a second is under construction at Limalimo a few kilometres north of Debark along the Aksum Road. Basic hutted accommodation can be found at Sankaber, Gich and Chennek Camps. There are several basic campsites elsewhere in the park. Budget hotels can be found in Debark.
All parks fees must be paid for and ticketed at the park headquarters in Debark. This is also where you must arrange scouts, guides, pack animals and (if required) transfers into the park. The Simien Mountains are very cold, with sub-zero temperatures frequently registered at night. Hikers should bring plenty of warm clothing and a windbreaker jacket.
Simien Mountains National Park: A Traveller’s Guidebook by Eliza Richman & Biniyam Admassu (2013) - detailed 44- page booklet with hiking and trekking routes.
Simien Mountains Ethiopia 1:100,000 map - Institute for Geography, University of Berne - excellent fold-out contour map usually sold at the park headquarters.
Bradt Guide to Ethiopia by Philip Briggs (7th edition 2015), www.bradtguides.com -detailed background information and up-to-date hotel, restaurant and other listings.
Simien Mountains National Park - tel +251 (0)58 1170407/22, www.simienmountains.org.
Amhara Culture, Tourism and Parks Development Bureau - www.amharatours.org.et.
- 100km south of the Simien Mountains, Gondar - a former capital of Ethiopia and UNESCO World Heritage Site - is the main road and air gateway to the national park.
- Visitors to the Simien Mountains must stop at the junction town of Debark, site of the national park office and guides association, and a few hotels, restaurants, shops and banks.
- The park entrance gate is at Buyit Ras, 14km east of Debark along an adequate unpaved road.
- The upmarket Simien Lodge, 6km past Buyit Ras, has the only proper restaurant and bar in the national park.
- The closest hutted camp to Debark and the park gate, Sankaber Camp stands at an altitude of 3,250m and is a reliable place to see the impressive lammergeyer soaring overhead.
- Set at a chilly altitude of 3,600m, Gich Camp, about six hour’s hike from Sankaber, also has basic hutted accommodation, and is a good place to look for foraging gelada baboons.
- Often summited on the hike between Gich and Chennek, the 3,925m peak of Imet Gogo forms part of the northern escarpment and offers stunning views over the valleys below.
- The scout outpost at Ayna Meda is a good place for day hikers to leave a car whilst they do the 3-4 hour round hike to Imet Gogo.
- The 3,620m Chennek Camp also has huts and is usually approached via an escarpment path offering superb views across sheer cliffs frequented by the park’s highest density of Walia ibex.
- Community tours to the village of Argin, 2km west of Chennek, focus on gastronomic activities such as making injera (a pancake-like dish unique to Ethiopia) and brewing local beer.
- The scenic 4,200m Bwahit Pass must also be traversed by all hikers heading east to Ras Dejen.
- Named after a nearby village, the 3,200m Ambiko Campsite is the normal overnight base for summiting Ras Dejen.
- A long return day-hike from Ambiko leads to the 4,533m peak of Ras Dejen (also known as Ras Dashen), which is the tallest mountain in Ethiopia and fifth-highest anywhere in Africa.
- The remote church of Darasge Maryam, set on a wooded hill near Mekane Berhan south of the national park, is decorated with paintings dating to the 1850s, shortly after it was consecrated.